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Cultural instruments connect students with their heritage

By Norah Shen and Pavana Upadhyaya Feb. 3, 2021

Photo Credits (from left to right): Courtesy of Irene Kang, Rex Li Photo

Instead of learning how to play common instruments like the violin, piano and guitar, many students at the school are practicing instruments specific to their culture. Although they are less commonly played in orchestras or bands, they are frequently utilized for traditional pieces. Senior Angie Liu, for instance, plays the pipa—a pear-shaped wooden lute made up of four strings that was invented in China during the second century.

Liu began playing the pipa nine years ago in a summer program with the California Youth Chinese Symphony (CYCS). She was inspired to learn when she saw pipa players utilizing fake nails to minimize nail damage as they rapidly plucked the strings.

In addition to playing the pipa for CYCS, Liu participates in numerous solo competitions and music examinations. For example, she has won a gold medal at the international Huain Cup and has successfully completed all 10 levels of the Chinese Central Conservatory of Music examinations. Liu seeks to play the instrument competitively because she enjoys the feeling of uniqueness when performing. Additionally, learning about the pipa has helped Liu better connect to her Chinese culture despite growing up in America.

“I felt detached from China because my Mandarin reading and writing are limited. By playing the pipa, I learned more about China’s culture, and I am able to have deeper conversations with many teachers who are masters at the instrument,” Liu said.

Similar to Liu, Junior Irene Kang also plays a cultural instrument: the gayageum. This 12-stringed Korean wooden sound box dates back to the sixth century.

Kang was first introduced to the gayageum three years ago and began playing it because of its similarities to the harp—an instrument that Kang had wanted to play in the past. Outside of private lessons, Kang performs in many concerts and cultural fairs with Urisawe, a Korean Culture Center.

Furthermore, she has played several times under the National Unification Advisory Council, at a fundraiser with the Sejong Korean School and other events with Nahnoom—an organization that collects donations through benefit concerts. Moreover, she competed in the Seventh Annual Korean Traditional Music and Arts Competition during her sophomore year.

Especially since Kang and Liu have found that playing the gayageum and pipa provides many benefits like enhancing hand-eye coordination and developing perfect pitch, they hope the school will offer opportunities to learn these instruments on campus.

“Schools should teach about instruments from all over the world so students can be more knowledgeable and have exposure to different cultures. In addition, students could share their own heritage by performing music from their home country,” Kang said.

Liu also believes it would be interesting to have a joint concert at the school involving various cultural instruments.

Even though the gayageum and pipa are not as widespread as other instruments, Kang and Liu appreciate the benefits of playing their instruments. Not only have they learned technical skills, but they have also obtained the opportunity of better connecting with their heritage.


About the Contributors

Norah Shen

Staff Writer

Norah Shen is a freshman at Leland High School and is a new staff writer. She likes to read, listen to music, and relentlessly tease her younger sister.

Pavana Upadhyaya

Staff Writer

Pavana Upadhyaya is a sophomore at Leland High School and is a staff writer. She likes to read nonfiction in her free time

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